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Sunrise Orchard always fields a crew for annual fall apple harvest
Career connections

GAYS MILLS - Last week, we discussed the employment needs and strategies of the area’s largest manufacturer with Ritchie Stevenson, the owner of BAPI (Building Automation Products Incorporated.) In this edition, we present the final installment in the three-part series on local jobs and hiring when we visit with the folks at Sunrise Orchard.

Just up the hill from BAPI on Highway 171 is the largest orchard in Gays Mills-the Sunrise Orchard. It was started 50 years ago by the Teach family and is still family-owned and operated.

On a recent Monday morning, Allen Teach the grandson of the original owner sat down with two managers, Sandy Jeffers and Brent Seiser to discuss the ever-changing employment dynamic at the orchard.

Allen Teach started with a history lesson. Employment at the orchard has shifted from one group to another over the years, according to Teach. In the beginning when his grandfather began the operation, most of the apple picking was done by hardworking dairy farm labor-particularly a group of farmers from North Clayton Ridge.

These “ambitious guys” would milk the cows and then come to the orchard, where they would work all day before returning to the farm to milk the cows. They were small dairy farmers like Darrel Hartley and the Maybees, according to Teach. The wives of the farmers would often work in the packing shed.

This source of farm labor in the orchard got scarce in the 60s and 70s as the small dairy farms were replaced by larger operations requiring more labor and more management, Teach explained.

So starting in the late 60s, another group arrived on the scene and began picking apples. They had moved to the area to enjoy an alternative lifestyle in the country and “rather enjoyed the fantastic job of picking apples,” according to Teach.

The alternative lifestyle crowd did not enjoy work in the packing shed as much, and some of that started to be done by local housewives looking for work.

Now, the alternative lifestyle pickers have been replaced by a blend of migrant workers and others. However, there are still “legacy employees” among the mix from both the farmer and lifestyle crowd, Teach noted.

Frank’s Orchard, once located down the road from Sunrise, always used more Hispanic migrant workers in the harvest. 

The local Ramirez family knows some agricultural workers and has been able to get Sunrise in contact with them.

At Sunrise Orchard every fall, it’s a question of how the crop will get picked, and how it will be packed, and how the retail store will be staffed. And every season, there’s  a slightly different answer and every season it happens.

Sunrise’s Brent Seiser is one of the people in charge of lining up the apple-picking crews. As the season approaches, the pickers start calling about the work, according to Seiser.

“The main question they ask, ‘is how does the crop look?’,” Seiser said. “They’re usually coming from seasonal work to more seasonal work here and then going to somewhere else for seasonal work and they’re trying to line things up.”

Although the migrant workers now provide a substantial number of the orchard’s apple pickers, about a third are still local. The locals include some of the  ‘legacy pickers’ Teach mentioned earlier-remnants from the farmer and alternative lifestyle groups.

Gays Mills Village President Harry Heisz picks apples at Sunrise, when he’s not working as the director of maintenance at the North Crawford Schools. He’s an ambitious guy with a farm background.

This year, there’s a completely new source of labor as well-but more on that in a moment.

Brent Seiser believes it’s the orchard operation itself that draws a lot of the labor.

“It’s some of the best apple picking available and that draws people who pick apples,” Seiser states simply. “It's something that they know they will make money doing. The pay will be better, the crop will be better and there will be a long season. To harvest that better crop, they’re willing to give their full effort here.”

Of course, all of the workers must be completely documented these days.

“We’re adamant to make sure we fully document the workers,” Teach said.

In the summertime, the pickers start coming back to Sunrise. A third are local and the other two thirds come from Illinois, New York, Texas Arkansas, Ohio, Alabama, Green Bay and elsewhere.

“They’re different groups. Sometimes they lose a couple and they’ll pick up some more,” Seiser said. “The groups are often family members and friends of family members.”

This year, Sunrise lost one crew coming from Houston that decided to stay and work on hurricane repair, according to Seiser.

“It’s definitely a juggling act, based on what we think the crop is,” Seiser said of lining up the crews.

Sunrise does provide state-inspected housing for the traveling pickers and can accommodate 31 people in four units.

So, what’s the new source of labor this season?

“Sunrise added nine H-2A workers from South Africa,” Teach said.

While there’s plenty of government regulations involved, Sunrise is pleased with the outcome and. so it would seem, are the South African workers.

“We blundered onto an agency in Marquette, Iowa who set this all up,” Teach said. A bonus for the orchard is the fact that the South African workers speak English.

Sunrise’s Sandy Jeffers noted that the unemployment rate in South Africa is currently 46 percent.

“It’s like having nine foreign exchange students,” Teach said of the group.

In addition to picking apples, the South Africans work in the packing shed and sell apples in the retail store. However, they cannot work in the bakery making apple donuts because that would not be classified as agricultural work-that’s the A in H-2A.

The program is very regulated and Sunrise expects a federal inspection from the U.S. Department of Labor at anytime. The South African group ranges in age from their 20s to 40s.

One woman is a mother with a family in South Africa. Another is an unemployed woman truck driver, who hopes to drive a truck in the United State someday. One worker is in training for the Olympic track team and another is a competitor in Iron Man events.

The packing shed line is currently staffed with half local and half H-2A workers.

Although employment at Sunrise peaks in the fall at 135, there are only 10 or 12 year-round workers.

Teach acknowledged that starting out slowly in August and peaking in late September or October can be a challenge. In the peak of the season, workers often work 50 to 60 hours per week. From now to Christmas, the remaining crew will work eight-hour days.

“Every July and August it’s like ‘how in the hell are we going o pull this off again?’” Teach said. However, every year for 50 years it has happened. It’s just that in 2017, it was the first year the South Africans helped.

For the record, all of the South Africans said they would definitely consider returning to work at Sunrise Orchard. Most said they found the employment agency that facilitated the work online or through advertisements in the newspaper.